Will GOP Reconsider Redirecting Amtrak Funding After Train Crash?

Republican lawmakers got a first-hand lesson in train safety Wednesday when their chartered Amtrak train hit a trash truck at a grade crossing in Virginia, killing one in the truck. Trump's infrastructure plan redirects Amtrak and transit funding.

3 minute read

February 2, 2018, 10:00 AM PST

By Irvin Dawid

"Republicans were heading to the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, for their annual planning retreat, a day after party members cheered for Trump’s first State of the Union address in Washington," report Anna Edgerton, Kevin Cirilli, and Billy House for Bloomberg News on Jan. 31.

The 10-car chartered train carrying 450 people hit a trash truck at a rural grade crossing near Crozet, Virginia, about 12 miles west of Charlottesville, at around 11:15 a.m. One of the three occupants of the truck died, the other two seriously injured, one critically. Train passengers were shaken, but largely uninjured. See local NBC newscast on the incident.

"Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who was reached by telephone aboard the train, said it took about a quarter-mile for it to stop, and a few of the passengers in his car were 'roughed up,'" report Hawes Spencer, Martine Powers and Faiz Siddiqui for The Washington Post.

“Most of us hit a knee or a head on the seat in front of us, but nothing too serious on board,” he said.

After the crash, the lead car of the train, which derailed slightly, was uncoupled from the other cars and will remain on the scene for investigators to assess. The rest of the train carried members of Congress and the other passengers back to Charlottesville Union Station, where they continued to Greenbrier via bus.

The train gates blocking traffic from entering the rail crossing were in the down position after the crash. There was no reported explanation as to why the trash truck was on the track. An AP report indicates the possibility of a gate malfunction, though it hasn't been confirmed by other reports. An explanation will be provided in time by the National Transportation Safety Board which launched a full investigation shortly after the crash occurred on Jan. 31. 

The crash was no anomaly

According to data from the Federal Railroad Administration showing vehicle-train collisions, fatalities, and injuries at highway-rail grade crossings for the years 1981-2016 provided by Operation Lifesaver, 2,025 crashes occurred in 2016, resulting in 265 deaths and 798 injuries. Progressive Railroad delves into causes and mitigations, short of building grade separations. 

Financing infrastructure improvements on the backs of Amtrak and transit

Media reports highlighted the actions by many congress members on the train, several being doctors, to aid the victims in the truck. Another way they could help would be to oppose President Trump's proposed diversion of funds from Amtrak to help provide the $200 billion seed money for his $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan.

The Trump plan "would likely redirect $200 million in existing funds from Amtrak and transit programs while calling for hundreds of millions more from cities, states, and the private sector," reports Kris Van Cleave, CBS News transportation correspondent on January 31, 2018.

Van Cleave goes on explain why many states, including Tennessee, won't be able to participate in the plan because state laws prevent the private investment needed to leverage the public funds.

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